Football's coming home for Mudgee's favourite son Aaron Downes

Football's coming home – at least for Aaron Downes. Mudgee's finest round-ball export never thought he'd see the day an A-League game would come to town.

Downes will be watching Saturday's clash between Western Sydney Wanderers and Brisbane Roar from afar, having entrenched himself in England long ago. But he'll be doing so with great pride, having taken the first steps of his professional journey in NSW's central west.

Mudgee's favourite son: Aaron Downes (right) celebrates with Stuart Musialik after a win by the Olyroos over North Korea in 2007.

Mudgee’s favourite son: Aaron Downes (right) celebrates with Stuart Musialik after a win by the Olyroos over North Korea in 2007.Credit:NCH Sport

Glen Willow Regional Sports Stadium will be the 116th venue to host a top-flight football fixture in either the National Soccer League or A-League. Ken Sutcliffe, another famous Mudgee product, calls it the "Wembley of the West". Built in 2012, it only seats 1000 but as many as 9000 have packed in for NRL matches over the last few years. Now it's football's turn.

Downes' life story succinctly captures why it is so important the A-League engages with country and rural areas. Born in Mackay, Downes moved to Mudgee when he was a toddler with his dad, who got a job there as a mining electrician. He started playing football pretty much straight away.

Eventually, his talent shone through – for the Mudgee Wolves, the town's representative team, for Bathurst '75 when they were still in the NSW state league system, and for the Western Region rep side. Scouts for the Australian Institute of Sport spotted him when he was playing for Country NSW and the rest, as they say, is history.

Downes was in the same AIS cohort as the likes of Mark Milligan, Stuart Musialik and Adam Federici, who graduated right in that awkward period between the end of the National Soccer League and the start of the A-League. Milligan and Musialik stayed at home, but Downes had an offer to move overseas and he took it. He's been there ever since.

Packed house: Glen Willow in all its glory during an NRL match.

Packed house: Glen Willow in all its glory during an NRL match. Credit:Paul Barkley

Former Olyroos defender Downes carved out a solid career in England's lower leagues – if unspectacular, by his own admission. He spent eight years at Chesterfield, three seasons at Torquay United and three more at Cheltenham Town, where he now serves as a first-team coach. "I had one or two options to come back home but it never seemed right at the time," Downes told Fairfax Media.

There are plenty of kids like Downes out there in the bush. Some of them such as Nathan Burns (Blayney) and Rhyan Grant (Canowindra) kick on and make it. Most of them don't, and often it's down to a lack of opportunity, not talent. Bringing the big time to their doorstep is a step in the right direction.

"It's a massive sporting town, Mudgee, that's produced some really good athletes over the years," Downes said. "The inspiration young kids will get from seeing seasoned A-League players will be fantastic. They can take a lot from watching them and add that fuel to them wanting to progress and become professionals themselves."

The Wanderers are doing their part and Mudgee is embracing them in return, with pubs and businesses draped in red and black livery this week. Western Sydney's full A-League squad is making the nearly four-hour drive to get their feelers out into the local community as part of the club's regional strategy.

"I don't think they've been given too much attention in the A-League era, and we're the closest club to them," CEO John Tsatsamis told Fairfax Media.

"Combine that with us being without a home ground, it's perfect timing for us to see what the appetite is like out there. We're not going to just turn up there, play a game and leave. We want to leave our mark."

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